The New Censorship
Harvard International Review
12 August 2008
Three days ago, the New York Times published a thought-provoking piece entitled “Today’s Kremlin: Too Elusive for a Solzhenitsyn?” Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, who died on August 3, was one of Russia’s greatest intellectuals. His novels criticizing Soviet labor camps got him imprisoned and exiled, as well as won him the Nobel Prize in 1970, and to an entire generation of Russian intellectuals he served as an emblem of what it means to speak truth to power.
His light, however, went out with not a bang but a whimper. Though reported widely in the mainstream Russian and Western presses, there was no national day of mourning, and many people either failed to recognize his name or ignored the coverage. Why should such a seemingly instrumental figure seem unimportant, and is there any space on the world stage for a public intellectual like Solzhenitsyn today?
These are the questions the Times article explores. Solzhenitsyn’s fame was certainly bolstered by his country’s history of an established intellectual class that views literature as a form of rebellion, but his Russia was also drawn in more clearly defined, Manichean lines than today’s. He was faced with an authoritarian government that shut down dissent in brutal ways, and his subject matter, his outspokenness, and his exile all served to make him a martyr to westerners. The crucial thing was that his work was read, both by his supporters and by those he decried. Writers with his kind of views in the Soviet days could count on a reaction of some sort, for the good or for the bad.
The link between literature and current events today, however, can seem more specious. The tendency is to think of books as something to analyze or read for pleasure and international politics as what’s happening in the real world. There are certainly many Russians with profound complaints against the current Putin administration (more will likely be added to their ranks in the wake of Russia’s recent invasion of Georgia), but there are no real leading lights among them, nor is there much public demand for a Solzhenitsyn-like figure.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was plunged into a period of almost undiluted capitalism. This shock therapy resulted in mass privatization, a huge gap between the rich and poor, corruption, and a confusion of values. In this “New Russia”, one would expect that ideas, like goods and services, could for the first time compete in a free market. This, however, has not been the case. The state still has something of a thumbhold on reigning ideas, using soft power to suppress. As the Times puts it:
“Mr. Putin’s system uses – or at least holds in reserve – methods that recall the old days. But it has been careful not to create martyrs. The chess genius Garry Kasparov, a respected intellectual who tried to found an opposition and pro-democracy movement, was not exiled, executed or sent to Siberia. He was simply sidelined by being effectively banned from state television, while being allowed to speak on the radio to like-minded liberals.
Similarly, while authors who explore Russia’s dark side, like Viktor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin and Viktor Erofeyev, have been branded “dangerous” by a pro-Putin youth group that flushed Mr. Pelevin’s books down the toilet, their books are still widely available. The journalist Anna Politskaya was assassinated after challenging the government – but by unknown gunmen rather than with the trappings of a show trial.”
The new censorship has nothing to do with banning books or sending rebels off to the gulags. It works instead by condemning dissidents to quiet irrelevancy. Liberals talk to fellow liberals, angry books languish in bookstores, and nothing gets done.
It would be naïve to try to stick it all to Putin, though. His government’s main tactic is to throw dissidents to the market, composed of ordinary citizens. It’s the citizens themselves, and the peculiar nature of the modern Russian economic system, that are responsible for most of the apathy, irony, and emasculation of the Russian opposition. As a frustrated young reader of Solzhenitsyn complains of his money-driven peers to another reporter, “The problem is that now, it’s all about consumption – this spirit that has engulfed everybody… People prefer to consume everything, the simplest things, and the faster, the better. Books are something that force you to think, reading books requires some effort. But they prefer entertainment.”